The Basque country – a unique football heartland

December 1, 2017: Abelardo is appointed Coach of Deportivo Alaves with the club sitting bottom of La Liga.

October 23, 2018: Alaves sit third in La Liga, with their recent run including a victory over Real Madrid

In almost any other season, most eyes zoning in on the Basque region would focus on Eibar and their continued, preposterous presence among Spain’s footballing elite. However, almost no one could have predicted that ahead of Matchday 10 it would be El Glorioso hoisting the Ikurriña highest, as it stands sitting third and occupying one of the automatic qualifying spots for the Champions League.

It would be quite an achievement for an outfit of such modest resources anyway, let alone when you consider the turnaround that Abelardo has effected in such a short space of time. From his first game in charge – the miraculous comeback from 0-2 down at Girona– the former Barcelona centre-half has this season taken his players to even greater heights, culminating in the last-gasp downing of Los Blancos at Mendizorroza earlier this month.

It is a strange irony that these two sides with the smaller fanbases, brands and stadia should be keeping pace with – and effectively usurping – their bigger Basque neighbours, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. Forgetting intra-regional rivalries for a second though, it more broadly represents the quite extraordinary capability of this northern Spanish hub to churn out not just talented young players, but to build club infrastructures that sustain successful teams.

The four clubs all have slightly different approaches, but there are broadly consistent themes that explain their success.

The first of these are the ownership models. Athletic Club – thanks to an exemption to Spain’s Sports Law – are one of four La Liga teams that were allowed to keep their Socio model rather than restructure to a privately-owned vehicle. Eibar, as a result of their ‘Defend Eibar’ fund-raising campaign that sought to ensure their promotion to the Primera in 2014, are owned by individual shareholders, many of whom are fans and locals. Alaves are owned by the Baskonia-Alaves group.

In short, each organisation is driven by a group of invested, passionate people with a common goal in mind – to see success on the pitch, with commercial initiatives and other external distractions minimised (indeed Eibar’s Sales & Marketing function consists of three people). The comparative lack of resources also creates an imperative to patiently nurture cheaper, local talent, with the added bonus that these players continue to feel an affiliation to the club and the region as they pass through the ranks. This manifests itself in committed on-pitch displays and loyalty off it when bigger sides come calling.

No more so was this evident in Aymeric Laporte’s decision to effectively delay his mooted transfer from Athletic to Manchester City: “Athletic is pretty much everything for me. It was to thank them a little bit. They still needed me for a few years. I'm happy to help them in every game.”

As for these players themselves, how do they make them so good? The answer lies in part in Spain’s league structure, but also in the overall way that Basque clubs typically organise themselves, from the first XI down to the junior levels.

Santi Urquaiga, an ex-Athletic defender who now works in their technical department outlined this approach in a recent interview: “There has to be a chord that unites all of this. There is not one space for the young players and another for the seniors. Our 16, 17 and 18 year-olds co-exist with the first team. They might not play together but they have grown up together. There are no barriers. It's all part of our philosophy.”

This line of sight and collective togetherness is aided by the way young players are fed through the domestic league system. Promising young talent will typically cut their professional teeth in the fourth tier with Los Leones’ feeder side Basconia before progressing to the club’s B team in the Segunda B division. These experiences forge toughness and resilience and prepare them for an eventual matriculation to the first XI. Laporte himself took this exact route, along with many others.

‘Con cantera y aficion, no hace falta importacion’ goes the Athletic motto, effectively – ‘with home-grown talent and local support you don’t need imports’. With the game continuing to globalise and monetise, one wonders how long this model will be sustainable and successful. But for Basque and Athletic fans in particular, this is the way they like it, whatever the outcome.